Reimagining Prison

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On Monday, some of America’s leading scholars, corrections authorities and advocates will gather at Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary—recently transformed into a museum—to launch an ambitious effort to explore visions for the future of incarceration in the U.S.

While a facility without bars or locks may sound too futuristic—and impractical—to some, it does establish the underlying motive behind the initiative, sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice as an outgrowth of its decade-old effort to identify and solve the chronic deficiencies of America’s overcrowded prisons and jails.

One of the early results of that effort was the 2006 report called “Confronting Confinement”, which identified alarmingly high levels of violence, as well as substandard health care and lack of accountability in correctional systems across the U.S.

Baz Dreisinger, one of the scheduled speakers, concedes there’s an  urgent need to fix current prison conditions and find better ways to address the needs of their inmates—particularly when they return home after serving their sentences.

“But my vision is a world without prisons,” says Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and author of “Incarceration Nations” a recently published exploration of innovative strategies adopted by prison officials in countries ranging from Rwanda and Singapore to Norway.

“It’s a world where [the concept of] restorative justice replaces prison systems…where we still have facilities for those who are not safe to release, but where there are genuine rehabilitation centers and intervention centers,” she told The Crime Report.

Dreisinger will be joined by Glenn Martin, president of JustLeadership USA; Vikrant Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute; Margo Schlanger of the University of Michigan Law School; and Neil Barsky, founder of The Marshall Project, for a series of what organizers call five-minute “lightening rounds” of visionary ideas to kick off its Reimagining Prison Project.

But the event will also concentrate on short-term measures that can address the ills of a system that infamously houses the world’s largest incarcerated population.

“More than 95 per cent of people in our prisons (today) will return home, yet 55 percent will end up back behind bars within five years,” writes Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, in a statement introducing Vera’s 18-month initiative.

“The Reimagining Prison Project…envisions a smaller correctional system that places human dignity at its philosophical and operational core, and also promotes public safety, successful re-entry, and transparency.”

Monday’s event, kicked off by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Vera President Nick Turner, will also feature some of the country’s most prominent institutional voices of reform—such as Pennsylvania corrections chief John Wetzel.

Organizers say the initiative will set “benchmarks for progress” on many of the challenges that have preoccupied prison reformers—and bedeviled corrections authorities—for decades.

Among them:

  • Limits on the use of solitary confinement and restrictive housing;
  • Development of quality educational and skills-training opportunities for inmates;
  • Expansion of medical and mental health care services;
  • Training and support of a new generation of correctional officers who can implement the needed reforms.

There’s nothing new about that to-do list. In recent years, the consensus over the failures of mass incarceration has grown to include scholars and critics on both the left and right.

And there appears to be mounting public support for a change of strategy—despite recent concerns about a crime spike in major cities. Whether such support can survive today’s current polarized political environment remains an open question.

John Jay’s Dreisinger, however, is one of those who think it will—if nothing else because she’s convinced that “optimism is an imperative” for America’s problem-plagued justice system.

“Fear-mongering has shaped our justice policy for 100 years or more,” says Dreisinger. “{But] In my own travels around the country, I see a great public appetite for change.”

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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